Illustration by Sveta Parfenyuk
Secrets, lies, and political inequality
Transparency and accountability are fundamental for modern democracies but grassroots governance depends upon social and cultural systems of knowledge which often raise serious barriers to information and political participation. Ethnographic fieldwork in a Romanian village shows how a culture of secrecy and deception permeates social interactions from everyday life to the workings of local politicians and administrators. Information about corruption and abuse of power becomes hidden and distorted when political leaders behave just like everyone else in the village: they protect shady deals and patronage using the epistemic advantage offered by technocratic knowledge and the haze of rumours and gossip.
Author Radu Umbres, Lecturer in Anthropology, National School of Political and Administration Studies Bucharest, is an anthropologist fusing ethnographic research with cognitive approaches to morality, cooperation, and communication. He studied Sociology at the University of Bucharest and the University of Oxford, followed by a PhD in Anthropology at University College London after two years of fieldwork in a Romanian village. After postdoctoral fellowships at Institut Jean Nicod, Paris and New Europe College, he currently teaches at National School of Political and Administrative Studies Bucharest. His recent work focuses on apparently-irrational cultural imitation in cargo cults, the mechanisms of social initiation by pranking, and revisiting other classical themes in anthropology from a cognitive perspective.
Sveta is an illustrator from Tiraspol. She has an Architecture degree from the Pridnestrovian State University.
Since childhood, Sveta has been fond of drawing using traditional techniques, but during quarantine she began experimenting with digital mediums, and developing her own style in the following years.
For a long time, Sveta used drawing as a tool to understand herself better and express her own emotions, and this experience helps her today professionally to visualise various topics and issues she empathises with.
Prologue: What creates the value of knowledge?
During my ethnographic fieldwork in a village in northeastern Romania, I was working as an apprentice on a construction site when a neighbour of our client came to have a look at the construction. The modern technologies brought by our foreman Mihai from Greece attracted his attention. Mihai had specialized in large projects, including the Olympic Village in Athens, and had collected many cutting-edge tools that he now used in Săteni (pseudonym of the village, like all the names of places and people that have been anonymized). The old man shook his head and exclaimed with feigned surprise: “My boy, where did you come with all these books?!? Your father was a mere shepherd, where did you learn to build houses like that, Mihai-o?!?…”
We all smiled at his cheeky praise expressing the deep respect that peasants have for those who have learned useful things at school or at work. “Books” was a metaphor for expert knowledge acquired from spheres associated with the state, with the industrial economy, basically with modernity in opposition to traditional rural culture. Difficult to obtain and scarce knowledge provides a strong bargaining position in transactional relationships.
One of the effects of a resource’s scarcity is its unequal social distribution and the emergence of inclusion and exclusion from access. The term “social inequality” most often brings to mind the image that some people have more things than others, be it property or money. Or the idea that some are more likely to get them than others. We could also think on a more general level that inequality means that some people are more powerful than others. Some forms of power, however, are invisible even though they are perhaps the most important in a society.
Knowledge is part of what social scientists call “human capital”. This is composed of resources used in the production of other resources – just as land, material capital (machines, buildings) or financial capital – but it is inside the organism either as mind or as mind-body articulation. One of the most significant forms of inequality comes from variations in human capital between people. Some have a lot of information or possess useful but very rare knowledge. Others have little knowledge or know what is known by many others without bringing much value.
Certain forms of knowledge do not refer to modes of economic production or information about markets, but to how a society’s collective resources are managed. It is still a form of technology, but it does not act on matter, but on actors. The goal is not to obtain things, but to produce social relations. However, the market principle remains the same: those who have desirable but scarce information get a larger slice of the pie produced by all people. Furthermore, excluding others from rare knowledge gives the power to influence the recipe and allocation of the social “pie”. Let us return to the ethnography of Săteni, which shows us how epistemic asymmetries lead to unequal power relations between villagers. One cause is the cultural obstacles facing the transmission of information.
Barriers to knowledge: fences, things put “behind”, and the mouth of the village
Sătenis say you can judge the state of a household by looking at the fence. Broken planks, fallen pillars, or any form of breach indicate a decline in the power of a family whose members cannot or are not motivated to defend their public image and the goods in the yard. Often, they are too poor or sick to care for fences or have nothing to protect. At the other end we have households with imposing, large, gaudy, healthy fences, which indicate an intense concern to maintain a good reputation but also to prevent any unwanted intrusion into the domestic space. One of the biggest dangers is also the hardest to detect: the eyes of others.
The peasant household presents the characteristics of an epistemic fortress, as I wrote in my monograph “Living with Distrust. Morality and Cooperation in a Romanian Village”. People in Săteni fear thieves or enemies who might steal or destroy their household goods, but their fears are diffuse, without identifying a specific suspect. Rather, the axiom is to assume that dangerous actors exist even if unknown, and the response is to raise hurdles in the way of malicious actions.
Things well hidden will not arouse envy or attract evil. As in other similar cultures, superstitions related to the evil-eye suggest an association between envious glances and misfortune. Everything valuable must be put “behind”, and vernacular architecture produces a sociofugal structure that prevents people outside from discovering too much about the family’s wealth. The windows facing the road, for example, always have closed curtains and the family’s daily life enfolds far from inquisitive observers. A similar approach makes family members very secretive in interactions with people outside of a narrow circle of trust. It is perfectly legitimate and even desirable not to reveal information about the household or even to resort to disinformation for self-protection.
This culture of suspicion and secrecy produces an epistemic universe with many unknowns but also an “education of attention” (as Tim Ingold calls it) to the smallest details that could provide a clue. The perverse effect is the hyper-interpretation of minor and disparate elements. From little bits of knowledge, people build hypotheses that are sometimes deeply fanciful but which remain theoretically possible when information is ambiguous or absent. Fertile imagination and the desire to appear knowledgeable about secrets amplify hyperbolic speculation circulating through gossip. People are very concerned about reputational danger from village gossip, as evoked in a joke: “You fart in this part of the village and the other side hears that you have soiled your pants”. All deplore the malice of gossipers but enthusiastically talk about others because it may be the only way to glean bits of information that may perhaps prove relevant and true.
My ethnography explored the fundamental role that the household plays in rural society and two places in Săteni borrow heavily from the defining elements of domestic life. One is the cemetery – unsurprisingly, as the world of the dead resembles the world of the living. The other is the town hall.
The mastery of political secrets
As I describe at length in Living with Distrust, the political life of Săteni is organised around family-centred social interactions and private spheres of moral relations. Genealogical or fictitious kinship ties (such as godparenthood) or enduring friendships constitute a pool of social power that local politicians use to win elections and manage village administration.
People often say about those in the town hall that “they are all one family and relatives”, and the formula is only partly metaphorical given the various connections between the members of the administration. The reference to kinship is meant to draw attention to the internal solidarity of local officials and elected officials. The mayor himself is described as “the householder”, but the characterization has ambivalent connotations because, like any good householder, the most important man in the village works primarily for the betterment of his own family.
A legal perspective would inquire whether the growing prosperity of the mayor’s household came from legitimate sources or from abusive use of power. While stories of corruption and influence peddling abound, no formal sanctions confirmed the accusations brought by political enemies. The town hall paid for a plank bridge five times more than the plausible cost, the village security company only hired members of the mayor’s political faction, and the purchase of a truck from a ghost company led to comical scenes when investigators tried to seize the vehicle which was first left without wheels and a second time hidden at a monastery in the area. Although possible administrative errors or the use of perfectly legitimate means cannot be ruled out, the suspicion that institutional privileges benefited strictly private interests has some basis.
Throughout his three mandates, the mayor’s wealth has grown dizzyingly considering only the visible part (agricultural land, land, machinery, buildings, etc.), while local enemies claim that an even greater part went to investments elsewhere in Romania or in hidden financial schemes. Similar rumours target any villager who people suspect has more than meets the eye. Envious rivals or hostile villagers monitored with heightened vigilance every cue of increase in the mayor’s fortunes. That he alone calls himself “overlord” after one glass too many only enhances the symbolic association with the boyars who once dominated Săteni.
The mayor’s power has many sources, and elections are won using a hierarchical, clientelistic network topped by the mayor, surrounded by a small group of key allies. Below are various individuals connected by kinship, friendship, and also patron-client relationships where stronger actors benefit from the loyalty of the weaker villagers who remain dependent on a patron’s protection. The mayor’s opponents mock these vulnerable individuals as “servants” or “puppies”, terms that suggest how the local leader represented an ideal householder. Proper householders are autonomous while others labour for them, they are surrounded by people as obedient as dogs and always try to enrich their household.
The mayor once exploited a law giving land to young people by endowing a few clients who then sold the land to him for ridiculous sums. Manipulating rules but also people, the shrewd operator turned a part of the commons into personal ownership. As they say, like moving money from one pocket to the other. The scheme depended upon his control over indebted villagers but also upon a keen understanding of institutions and regulations to keep the business entirely legal.
The mayor and his intimate group of local government supporters keep a clean house in terms of secrecy. As diligent householders do, the ruling faction maintains the informational fences between insiders and outsiders. Gossip and rumours are inevitable, some stories are hyperbolic, some phantasmagoric, and others quite plausible but few know what is really going on in local government. Information asymmetry is not an accident but part of a broad arrangement to gain and maintain power. The public can access information about local governance but few know how to or dare ask about matters outside their private concerns. By and large, ordinary people have only vague ideas about the budget, public spending, contracts, hiring, or the activity of clerks. A proper understanding of the workings of public administration requires skills to read “legalese” and competencies to assess economic values that only a handful of villagers possess – and many of them are exactly those in power.
There are some who have both abilities and motivations to discover the extent of mismanagement and embezzlement yet good governance is not necessarily their goal. Rather, these actors who form alliances to compete with the ruling faction organised around the mayor want to appropriate the political and epistemic means of production. The political adversaries fight to control resources not to change the rules of the game or the asymmetry of knowledge between the powerful and the weak. A form of complicity binds enemies who might viciously hate each other yet behave similarly. When the main contender for the mayor’s seat lost the elections, he managed to gain control over a collective association of villagers managing the pastures. His inner circle used personal know-how and social connections to siphon the lion’s share from collective funds just like their local political enemies were doing in the mayoralty.
A little detail in this story is striking. A few of the main actors involved in these lucrative shenanigans had a criminal record. Among their rather special traits was an impressive knowledge of laws – and a keen sense of invoking, exploiting, and avoiding them in practical matters. But it is only reasonable that precisely those villagers fighting with the judiciary system acquired expert information and practical experience of dealing with a rule-based organisation. Bluntly put, thieves and murderers know more about how the state works than a benign ploughmen or a homemaker.
The social construction of the rarity of knowledge
Social institutions are often defined as the “rules of the game” (by Douglass North) or as social expectations of behaviour (by Christina Bichierri). The rules are often not known to everyone equally well, or people have different information about the stakes. Those more knowledgeable may manipulate the rules or control the actions of those who don’t know as much or as well about the reality of social interactions. The power afforded by knowledge creates incentives to produce and/or maintain epistemic asymmetries against the weak.
“Knowledge is power” (Knowledge is power) said Francis Bacon, an idea also found in Thomas Hobbes, the Bible, and various cultures around the world. Then what knowledge have those with more power than others? If information is a scarce resource, then actors struggle to gain control and exclude opponents. The competition is quite complex and subtle since knowledge is different from other resources: intangible because residing in and between people’s minds, encoded in symbols whose meaning is only accessible to some, camouflaged much better than material endowments. Ownership of a building is easily observed, but the possession of a secret is, by definition, hidden from all but those privy to the truth without disclosing it. The power of secrets, as Georg Simmel said, lies not so much in the content itself, but in the fact that some people have it and others don’t. Keeping and defending a secret is, in fact, often the very form of building and maintaining inequality of power in a society.
Both in traditional societies of Melanesia or Africa or in modern states, the rulers of men use secret knowledge to dominate others. Information and skill increase their bargaining position and they have a vested interest in preventing others from access to the tools of power. Even in a small case study like this village, politicians and administrators can become gatekeepers of resources because they control information. Leaders intentionally maintain or encourage the opacity of organisational mechanisms to hide self-serving behaviours – or at least muddle the waters enough to leave accusations at the level of ambiguous rumours.
Would things have been different in Sateni politics and administration if villagers had more true and relevant knowledge about fundamental institutions such as the mayoralty or the state? If individuals follow their rational self-interest but are also motivated by moral sentiments, as I interpret Sateni villagers in my book, then forms of protest might have coalesced around glaring misdeeds. Perhaps citizens would have voted out representatives who misused their power for private gain or perhaps officials concerned with their reputation and social support would have increased public benefits more than their own wealth. Even without disappearing completely, levels of corruption and arbitrary use of power might have dropped when actors in power know that the public knows what they are doing as leaders and administrators.
As social scientists, our primary duty is towards the truth. We may not be too good at discovering it and our knowledge always remains partial and provisional to future changes. Yet we produce knowledge open to all people, which is perhaps our main role in contributing to fair and inclusive communities. One can only hope that this tiny sliver of anthropological knowledge helps people understand how their societies work even behind the veil of secrecy which sustain forms of exploitative power.